Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are an integral part of our country’s social fabric. Founded during a time when it was illegal for African Americans to read, these storied institutions have helped fill in educational and health equity gaps for unserved and underserved communities ever since their inception. Centuries later, they can also be partners in bridging the digital divide.
Many HBCUs are located in rural areas and blighted urban centers. These are the same places where large communities of color struggle with access to health care and face innumerable obstacles to access affordable and reliable broadband. But in the wake of COVID-19, HBCUs nationwide have stepped in to provide life-saving solutions to Black and brown communities disproportionately impacted by the virus.
Following the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, students at Meharry Medical College in Tennessee staffed coronavirus testing sites throughout the university’s predominately-Black community — and most recently — partnered with six churches across the city to increase the number of testing sites available in many of Nashville’s larger Black and Brown communities.
In Florida, scholars and researchers at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) were recruited by the Florida Department of Health (FDH) to assist with data collection and interpretation as well as healthcare messaging for communities of color at the very onset of the pandemic. The FDH recognized that FAMU students and professors are uniquely qualified to attend to the healthcare needs and requests from people of color, and leveraged these relationships to save lives.
While FAMU and Meharry’s valiant efforts to pinpoint and address racial disparities in communities of color are critical, they have the capacity to do even more. Given their ability to assist with community data collection and analysis, HBCUs may be the change agents we so desperately need in the fight for universal broadband access and adoption in some of the most disconnected communities.
Before the pandemic, more than 20 million households did not have access to reliable and affordable broadband, while over one-third of students in those households lacked sufficient access to the internet or a computer to complete school. These numbers underestimate the scope of the problem.
As COVID-19 rages on, the need for universal connectivity is stronger than ever as schools convert to online learning, businesses shutter, unemployment rates rise and doctors turn to telehealth services. No one can afford to be disconnected as we shelter-in-place, especially those who are already at an educational or economic disadvantage.
HBCU partnerships could help improve broadband data collections in order to identify which residents actually have access to broadband and which still do not. Serious improvements in broadband mapping are needed to solve crippling inequities in broadband access. Flawed data sets from communities of color, as well as rural and urban communities, continue to impact the level of broadband connectivity available to those who need it most.
But identifying inaccuracies in the current maps requires a multifaceted approach, especially when it comes to on-the-ground research in communities where residents might be hesitant to participate in research conducted by unfamiliar groups or individuals. To ensure that mapping practices and research are culturally responsive, HBCUs could provide much-needed expertise to collect data absent from the FCC’s data sets.
Students and faculty at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, Coppin State University, Fayetteville State University, Tennessee State University (TSU) and the University of Maryland at Eastern Shore (UMES) are already using their skillset to study geographical issues that disproportionately impact communities of color. Their program-specific foci should be incorporated into research and mapping efforts employed in their surrounding communities.
As we look to the future, Alabama A&M, Coppin, Fayetteville State, TSU and UMES are only a sampling of HBCUs that could play an integral role in collecting broadband mapping data and supporting broadband adoption. Improving broadband mapping data will also help direct broadband expansion resources to communities in need.
Working with the National Telecommunications Administration’s (NTIA) Minority Broadband Initiative and developing partnerships with HBCUs will undoubtedly empower communities whose experiences are shaped by policies and legislation created without little-to-no community input. Because of their unique focus on issues impacting marginalized communities, HBCU partnerships can help address these inefficiencies in power structures while strengthening rural and urban communities, and communities of color nationwide. The resulting strengthened networks and renewed commitments to accurate data collecting can be instrumental in addressing existing legislation head-on.
Together, HBCUs and communities of all sizes can transform the quality of life and economic well-being of millions of people by ensuring that every neighborhood has affordable and accessible broadband.
Brittany-Rae Gregory is the Communications Director for Next Century Cities.